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What Not To Say To Someone Doing Dry January

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“Are you pregnant?” a random stranger asked me. I was among friends, sans cocktail, in a New York City bar. It was 2017, and I was one week into my first Dry January (read: thirty-one days without wine, beer or spirits).

I stood in the dimly lit bar, stunned and slowly gazing at the faces around me. I had just turned down a drink, and now I was being asked about the state of my uterus. In what other setting, I wondered, would someone I don’t know have the audacity to ask me that? I gave an awkward, closed-mouth smile and replied, “Actually, I’m doing a Dry January.” I turned on my heels to signal that the conversation was over.

Since my first year participating in Dry January, I’ve kept the tradition alive. Each year I’ve been asked a number of questions ― mostly polite queries, but also some that are flat-out rude ― about my monthlong abstinence. (I wrote about how I tackle impromptu feedback in my book “The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month,” a nonjudgmental guide about giving up alcohol for 29 to 31 days.)

I understand not everyone is being judgmental or trying to offend, but even with the best intentions, spectators’ comments can come across as impolite. Here are some remarks that experts (and yours truly) advise you to keep to yourself — for the sake of etiquette, practicing inclusivity, and, ya know, being kind. (Cheers to that.)

‘Can’t you have just one drink?’

Some people do participate in a one-drink January, but that’s a choice for the individual, and not one that should be induced by peer pressure.

“This comment disrespects a person’s decision to abstain from alcohol, and suggests they are incapable of limiting themselves when drinking,” said Laura Caruso, a dating and relationship therapist in New York.

A similar question might be “Are you going to stop drinking forever or just a month?” said April Brown, a licensed therapist based in South Florida. “This subconsciously sends the message to the participant that you are not supportive of their decision.”

‘Do you have a problem?’

Dry January, or participation in any other alcohol-free month, is not a replacement for Alcoholics Anonymous or recovery programs.

“Lately, I’m seeing more people opt to participate in Dry January or abstain from alcohol as a general lifestyle choice, not because they struggle with alcohol,” Caruso said.

Melissa Wood-Tepperberg, a health and wellness coach and the founder of the wellness platform MWH, often gets asked about her choice not to drink.

I genuinely see a wave of change happening when it comes to the culture of drinking,” she said. “I’d like to hope that we are moving away from a culture where we just assume that everyone consumes alcohol because it is a norm.”

Taking time off from drinking should be more normalized -- and when people ask impolite questions about doing so, that implies that it's somehow wrong.

Henrik Sorensen via Getty Images

Taking time off from drinking should be more normalized — and when people ask impolite questions about doing so, that implies that it’s somehow wrong.

‘What an accomplishment!’

Wood-Tepperberg notes that alcohol is the one drug people have to offer an explanation for not using.

“I also hear a lot that it’s an ‘accomplishment,’” she said. “It’s something I am open about and am personally happy to share about, but grouping it as an accomplishment implies those who don’t choose this are doing something wrong.”

‘How are you going to de-stress without alcohol?’

For me: exercise, sleep, socializing with friends and taking a walk. And because I usually have an answer ready, this question perplexes me.

“Saying something like this subconsciously states that you believe their only adequate coping mechanism is alcohol,” Brown said. “It disregards the option that the participant has other coping mechanisms for stress, which can have a strong impact on the participant’s view of themselves and how they believe they cope with stress.”

‘Do you miss alcohol?’

Before my first Dry January, I wondered if I would miss drinking.

“A decision to abstain from alcohol is not an easy decision to make in modern-day society,” Caruso said. “American culture glorifies drinking, so opting for sobriety as everyone around you continues to consume alcohol is incredibly challenging.”

Another truth: Once I got past the messaging that “alcohol = fun,” I quickly realized that I didn’t miss buying expensive drinks or feeling nauseated later on in the evening. I certainly did not miss the feeling of a hangover or a pounding headache the next day. Some of the things I thought I’d be missing out on — including fun times with friends and a normal dating life — were still available to me without alcohol. (That said, explaining this can get tiresome to people who don’t want to accept my experiences as true.)

How to support friends doing Dry January

Do you want to support someone who’s participating in Dry January? Instead of asking targeted and potentially triggering questions, you can simply ask: “How can I support your dry month?”

Brown suggests involving Dry Jan participants in get-togethers, like normal. “Continue to actively involve them in social plans and don’t assume that just because they are not drinking for a while that they don’t want to go out.”

If you’re going to a bar, check to see if they have nonalcoholic options on the menu. When you’re hosting, have something available that everyone can drink.

“Try to provide options,” Wood-Tepperberg said. “There are so many nonalcoholic beverages. Having them readily available can help normalize anyone’s individual choices.”

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.



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